Once upon a time, there was a filmmaker named Sidney Lumet, who famously found new ways to create cinema by tackling hefty thematic material through smart, claustrophobic character studies. Through his glimpses inside the minds of cinema’s greatest characters, he tackled racism (12 Angry Men), police brutality and corruption (Serpico and Prince of the City) the corporatization of the news (Network), the corroding nature of government corruption and abuse (Dog Day Afternoon) and the failure of the human spirit (all of them). Lumet’s work is influential and has not been attempted since his death in 2007. I tell you all this because I’ve finally seen a film that not only strives for the vision Lumet once did, but actually achieves it. And that would be Kitty Green’s narrative debut, The Assistant, a clawing, intense slow burn that will weevil into your mind and challenge you in an intriguing, exciting way.
Jane (Julia Garner) has been working at a big-time film production company for five weeks. She wakes up early to be the first one in, prepares the coffee, and cleans up from the night before. Sometimes she’ll find a weird odd and end inside her Boss’ office, but she knows better than to ask questions. However, as we travel with her throughout the course of an average day, the coincidences begin to pile up. The jokes her colleagues make hit a little closer to home. Her Boss’ wife breaks down in the office bathroom. And there’s a new girl who’s just shown up, even younger than Jane, that her Boss keeps disappearing off with. The Assistant follows Jane both as she processes this information and her attempts to decide she can even do with it, if anything.
If you can’t tell from that summary above, there’s a specific reasoning for that. Kitty Green’s ambition is to put you in the shoes of a newer employee who can sense that her Boss is a serial harasser – if you’re really in the know for the industry, it’s not hard to draw a direct line from Harvey Weinstein to the unnamed Boss and producer here – but lacks the hard evidence to prove her case. Similar to how Lumet films would demonstrate the failures of the institution around one central protagonist, Green’s statement here is to show, through Jane’s eyes, exactly how someone could get away with unspeakably heinous behavior for so long without anyone stepping in to say anything. Throughout the film, Green provides hints and references that, as an audience, we wholeheartedly understand, even though they in theory add up to nothing. These subtle touches begin from the jump, as Jane finds small pieces of jewelry and hair ties as she cleans the office, and scrubs indiscernible stains out of her Boss’ couch. Nothing is out of the ordinary, per se – in theory these are normal day-to-day activities – but Green films them with such a clear sense of foreboding (without ever playing her hand) that it feels painfully ominous. Hell, it’s a subtle, minor touch, but I don’t think I’ll ever get the amplified sound effect of scrubbing that couch out of my head, it’s that unsettling.
Meanwhile, the evidence and moral decay adds up with each scene, as we witness clue after clue pass before Jane’s eyes, never unnoticed, but never acted upon. Checks appear on her desk that need signatures without names. A never-ending scene shows Jane printing head shot after head shot of incredibly young actresses, each smiling innocently as they’re led to the slaughter. Women we’ve seen perky and excited reappear later broken, fidgety and stunned. And when these women do make reappearances, they are often hailed down by the company lawyer before Jane can even speak to them. Green directs these sequences with a quiet, straightforward sensibility, which ironically and incredibly makes the film all that more tense, even without a clear moment of direct threat or conflict. She crafts her film filled with true-to-life subtleties and realities that reflect a more honest, terrifying horror. After all, the film only makes the occasional reference to the film industry, and the office lacks any signifying establishments of time – Green wants us to understand that this film could take place at any time in any industry, and she does so brilliantly. Each moment carefully avoids overplaying her hand or message, and instead clearly demonstrates, in painfully real time, exactly how such horrific events can be allowed to continue under the noses of so many otherwise-decent people.
Of course, Green also wants us to understand the toxically symbiotic relationship between a boss guilty of harassment and the culture that surrounds him. Harassment can’t exist in a world that doesn’t cultivate it, and likewise a boss carefully selects individuals that either reflect his own worldview or lack the courage to defy it. It’s what we now know about the controversy at Fox News, and how Roger Ailes got away with so much for so long because he surrounded himself with both equally heinous abusers (O’Reilly, Ed Henry, and Eric Bolling) or those who were willing to joke and ignore the warning signs (Hannity, Watters, etc.). The Assistant captures both types of employee in striking detail at every turn throughout. Jane is constantly bombarded with inappropriate jokes or belittling behavior. Fellow executives joke about not sitting on the couch, and how the Boss’ constant disappearances are “Just like Cannes. Or the Bellagio.” They listen in and laugh while their Boss deals with victims on the phone. And even when they’re not joking about horrific abuses of power, they rarely reach out to talk to the women of the office, especially not Jane. In fact, the only time anyone reaches out to talk with her is a complacent fellow assistant, who only does so to teach her how to properly apologize.
At least he’s a step better than his other male counterpart, who constantly belittles Jane and makes her deal with “women work,” like lying to The Wife about The Boss’ whereabouts. Of course, it’s not just the men who are guilty of apathy and enablement. The women of the office are just as culpable, whether through intentional ignorance or willful participation. They intentionally look the other way when clearly traumatized women wander the office. Female agents intentionally leave “auditions” while complaining about having to waste their own time on the charade. Perhaps the smartest metaphor the film presents is Jane cleaning up a mess from the previous night and sneaking a piece of leftover pizza – beyond a literal representation of the struggle of being an assistant, it also shows how Jane is willing to clean up men’s messes for a piece of the pie. It makes sense that Green makes the choice to never show the unnamed Boss’ face – she doesn’t need to. His presence and influence can be seen on each and every character we interact with.
The film’s main goal, however, is not a simple demonstration of what workplace harassment looks like. No, The Assistant’s main thesis is to help us understand how an ordinary person can be convinced into selling their soul – something it accomplishes through its impressive use of the “day in the life” format. By placing us firmly in Jane’s POV, we begin to understand the taxing, anxiety-inducing stress that can coerce an otherwise-decent person into allowing evil to permeate. Even before we get to the actual revelations and horrors of the industry, Green puts us through the motions with Jane, from an eerily-realistic sleep-deprived Uber ride through the streets of New York to printing grosses, making copies, and filling Fiji waters in the fridge. The mundanity and repetition of these actions and motions, especially when they begin to revolve around hiding The Boss’ corruption and evil, clearly breaks down Jane’s mental state, and make both her and the audience susceptible to coercion. Green uses little music during these sequences, creating a depressing, lonely soundscape that echoes through the film’s exteriors. Jane is isolated from family and friends, too busy to call them and discuss her fears, suspicions, and mental deterioration, alienating the audience from anyone to turn to for help. Hell, even Jane’s stature is used as a weapon by the characters and director – Green uses Garner’s slight frame and meek demeanor to create a sense of claustrophobia. It allows the set to consume her, the camera to dwarf her, and the men to tower over her. Their monstrous height over her diminutive stature allows them to metaphorically and literally intimidate her – there’s a fantastic moment where men slowly and subconsciously surround her to pressure her into a decision, symbolically pressuring her into silence. Green paints a claustrophobic world where good people are cut off from support and physically intimidated into submission, and it makes for a fascinating character study.
I want to tell you all about a sequence in this film that absolutely left me speechless. The film’s most brilliant example of how internal pressure can hinder justice comes in the soon-to-be-iconic HR scene. There are few sequences in recent memory as brilliantly acted as the point-counterpoint conversation between Garner’s Jane and Matthew Macfadyen’s perfectly-portrayed HR representative Wilcock. In fact, it’s one of the best written, best directed, and best acted moments I’ve seen in years. As the film approaches the end of its second act, Jane finally reaches a breaking point and decides to turn to HR for help dealing with her concerns and observations. Green stages the sequence brilliantly, allowing Macfadyen’s Wilcock to seem helpful, albeit confused as the conversation begins. Macfadyen’s smooth tongue is so wickedly talented it even manages to get we the viewers confused over what we’ve witnessed – after all, we haven’t seen anything, and neither has Jane. Perhaps we’re reading too far into the subtext? And yet, while the audience is eventually keyed into Wilcock’s carefully staged gaslighting, Jane never is – or at least is unable to act upon it. Green carefully flips the power dynamic of the scene as she reminds viewers that oftentimes, HR’s goal is to assist the boss, not the employee, and that despite hope for a brief respite, Jane is truly alone in her quest for justice. Macfadyen delivers each line with a sense of both kind helpfulness and underlying malice, making caring observations work as threats. “I know you’re under a lot of stress. And you’re so smart, you’ll absolutely make a difference in this industry…so why would you want to throw it all away?” It’s a haunting scene, demonstrating the power of the simple shot-countershot, culminating in perhaps the most condescending power move ever put on film. Not only is it a terrific moment in filmmaking, it helps audiences understand that this film is not going to end the way they hope it will. This is not a film with a sense of catharsis, or release, or justice. It is a scathing look at the system, in all its broken glory, that dares the audience to wonder, “What can I do to stop this?”
In terms of the performances, it’s hard to think of a better-acted film I’ve seen all year. Garner is an exemplary demonstration of internal acting, utilizing every aspect of her body and mind to demonstrate Jane’s plight. She constantly looks as though she’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown, tears welling in her eyes, and it makes us worry both for her sanity and our own. She uses every inch of her 5’5” frame to portray someone shrinking in on themselves (she seems so much smaller than that), and demonstrates an observant, but inactive protagonist to her core. Of course, her performance is only as good as her sparring partners, and that’s why Macfadyen’s Wilcock is equally impressive. I squealed with joy when Macfadyen showed up, both because I anticipated a showcase in acting (which I got) as well as his newfound ability to play the weasel. I’m not sure at which point the Pride and Prejudice star decided that he would rather become the next Peter Lorre as opposed to the next Colin Firth, but if it means that we get more performances like Wilcock and Tom Wambsgans for the rest of eternity, I’m onboard. Jon Orsini and Noah Robbins have an impressive good cop/bad cop routine as Jane’s fellow assistants, with Orsini’s assistant playing passive enabler while Robbins is the epitome of misogynistic douchebag. And while there aren’t many other characters amongst the cast, I do want to commend Kristine Froseth as Sienna, one of the girls brought in for a meeting with The Boss. Froseth captures Sienna’s journey in subtle detail with only a handful of scenes, as her demeanor significantly changes between her first appearance and last. It’s a slight, but important shift, and it’s an impressive piece of acting on her part.
The Assistant is a masterful outing, and a demonstration of the assured hand of a voice on the rise. It’s a film that I, to be quite honest, wasn’t sure about in its opening minutes, and found myself utterly crushed by at the end of its 85-minute runtime. The Assistant has challenged me more than any other film this year, and I cannot praise the efforts of Kitty Green enough here. She knows exactly what she wants to say, and places it onscreen with confidence, clarity, and decisiveness. The Assistant is a film that will challenge you. It will make you rethink your surroundings and your choices. It will make you loathe the system and want to create dynamic change. And yet, while all of these descriptors make it sound like homework, it’s still one of the most invigorating outings I’ve seen in quite a while. I can’t wait to see where Green’s career takes her from here, but even if The Assistant ends up being the extent of what she has to say, or if she never captures this level of magic again, that’s still ok. She’s done more with her freshman outing than many directors would accomplish in a career.
The Assistant is now streaming on Hulu, and is available to rent and buy on iTunes, Amazon, and Vudu